Embattled Philippine Supreme Court chief goes on leave amid resignation rumours

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno would be taking a 15-day "wellness leave" starting on March 1, 2018, two weeks ahead of schedule, so she can prepare for an expected impeachment trial before the Senate.
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno would be taking a 15-day "wellness leave" starting on March 1, 2018, two weeks ahead of schedule, so she can prepare for an expected impeachment trial before the Senate.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA - The Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, now facing impeachment in Congress, decided on Tuesday (Feb 27) to go on leave amid reports her fellow justices were pressing her to step down.

A spokesman said Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, 57, would be taking a 15-day "wellness leave" starting on Thursday (March 1), two weeks ahead of schedule, so she can prepare for an expected impeachment trial before the Senate.

Some supporters of Ms Sereno claim efforts to impeach her are politically motivated, as she has on many occasions sparred with President Rodrigo Duterte over his controversial crackdown on the narcotics trade.

Mr Sereno's spokesman Jojo Lacanilao, however, brushed aside reports that a number of justices wanted her to resign to avoid a drawn-out trial that could damage the judiciary.

The hearings have exposed cracks in the Supreme Court, with some associate justices openly questioning, and sometimes attacking, Ms Sereno's leadership and decisions as Chief Justice.

"Definitely, she will not resign. Please keep that away from your minds. She's not going to resign," Mr Lacanilao told reporters.

"She has a scheduled wellness leave. It's already on her schedule. She will just be taking it earlier, so she can prepare for the Senate trial."

A congressional committee has over the past five months been hearing a complaint filed by lawyer Larry Gadon, a supporter of Mr Duterte, accusing Ms Sereno of violating the Constitution, corruption, and betrayal of public trust.

Mr Gadon alleged that Ms Sereno misled the Supreme Court concerning her assets, and overrode decisions made by her fellow justices.

Ms Sereno also purportedly failed to declare her earnings as a lawyer for the government in an airport dispute, and appointed court officials without approval from the other members of the Supreme Court.

Ms Sereno will go on leave as the committee prepares to vote next week on whether there is "probable cause" to impeach her. If there is "probable cause", the committee can then send its report to the House of Representatives.

A vote of at least one-third of the members of the House, or 98 out of 292 congressmen, will then kick off an impeachment trial at the Senate, which will determine whether Ms Sereno is guilty or not.

The committee's chairman, Representative Reynaldo Umali, said Ms Sereno will now have "time to reflect on what would be best for the judiciary which she heads".

Ms Sereno was appointed Chief Justice in 2012 by former president Benigno Aquino. She is not set to retire till 2030, when she turns 70.

In 2016, she expressed concerns over the names of judges Mr Duterte had in his list of purported drug suspects.

She said unsolved killings of nearly 5,000 drug suspects had been eroding public trust in the country's criminal justice system.

Ms Sereno has also been critical of Mr Duterte's decision to impose martial rule over all of southern Mindanao island, after hundreds of Muslim militants stormed and seized large parts of the southern city of Marawi.

She said Mr Duterte should not have taken it upon himself to declare martial law. She had wanted to limit the scope of martial rule to only three provinces in Mindanao where Islamist extremists are known to thrive.

Another critic of Mr Duterte's drug war, Senator Leila de Lima, has been in jail for over a year. She is being held, without bail, on charges she coddled a drug trafficking ring being run by inmates at the national penitentiary.

As head of the human rights commission and later as senator, De Lima led investigations into alleged human rights abuses committed by "death squads" pursuing Mr Duterte's crackdown on drugs.